To a food industry that's tried wellness, convenience, color and just about every other attribute to jump start growth, the Quality Institute International (QII) is looking to add yet another attribute , taste.The American Tasting Institute (ATI), the food and beverage testing service of San Francisco-based QII, has been testing thousands of products for 15 years, as well as licensing rights for select products, those it judges best in their respective categories -- to use ATI's Gold Medal in their marketing. But despite all those gold medals, many of which have popped up on packaging for major brands, QII has a problem: Most consumers still don't notice the medal or even know what it means. Now under the management of John Parker, who joined the Institute as president two years ago, QII is out to change that and possibly help raise the profile of flavor as a marketing tool. So it has hired TrueBrand, a San Francisco branding consultancy, and public relations firm Golin Harris, also of San Francisco, as it prepares a two-year campaign to make consumers -- and the food industry, take notice of that little gold medal. Later this month, ATI plans to alert current Gold Medal Honorees of a "new look, feel and messaging" for the QII program in the hopes that food marketers will start incorporating the updates into their 2004 marketing initiatives, according to Julie Hagler, chief marketing officer of the Institute. In September, QII will roll out the first part of its marketing plan, with a public-relations blitz from Golin Harris targeted at television, print and radio media, as well as grassroots and event marketing, with plans for print and possibly radio advertising to follow in 2004. QII also will redesign its Web site, qii.org, in September, making it primarily a tool for educating consumers about the Gold Medal."We're going to make public relations and the marketing tools of our licensees the first thrust of consumer awareness," Hagler says. "We think this is the kind of message that needs depth, not just a five-second visual impression. So the PR and the clients who are winners are going to be the ones to really carry the message forward."Hagler acknowledges that consumer awareness currently is low. "But [our] research has definitely proved there is a need and desire among consumers to know more about the concept of having independent chefs judge the best of the best and have that be something they actively seek."On a rollQII already seems to be gaining some momentum with some clients. Edy's Whole Fruit Bars have received Gold Medal honors for three years, but only began using the designation in marketing this year, says Kara Haskell, marketing manager of super-premium brands for Dreyer's in Oakland, Calif. Edy's highlighted the Gold Medal in a freestanding insert in a national newspaper that dropped on July 27, and is also using it in point-of-sale material, including a new program called SuperFridge that puts dedicated Whole Fruit freezer displays in some stores. "We started using the Gold Medal after doing some investigative work on what other brands were using it," Haskell said. "Identifying those brands, which included Snack Wells and Coffee Mate, helped us decide to use it. We think it will become the J.D. Power or AAA rating of the food industry, so we wanted to be on the cutting edge."Haskell believes the Gold Medal could be a deciding factor for consumers who haven't tried the product before and don't have strong loyalty to a competing brand. She also believes that as QII takes steps to educate consumers about the Gold Medal, more and more consumers will start looking for it. "You can slap anything on your package, like ,'best tasting' or whatever," she said, "but if the seal starts to gain some kind of meaning, that's where I think the Quality Institute can really start to gain some client base."In addition to QII's efforts, she believes the network effect of more food brands using the Gold Medal in their marketing also will raise its profile. "Based on the client list they're accumulating," she says, "we think this is going to be an up and coming thing."After sweeping six categories last year, St. Louis-based Russell Stover candy began using its Gold Medal in TV and print ads last holiday season and plans to continue using them this year, says John O'Hara, vice president of marketing. "Our upper management has embraced the Gold Medal promotions," he says. "It's a long-term commitment whenever you start changing packaging. I'm excited [QII is] going to be doing a lot more publicity with the Gold Medals."A lot to chew on By setting itself up as the food industry's arbiter of good taste, QII is biting off a lot. Staying on top of changing product mixes and food trends means judging many of its categories annually. And making its verdict mean something means maintaining culinary and ethical standards.All products are judged double blind by a panel of professional chefs against pre-assigned criteria, which vary according to what's relevant to the category, including taste, aroma, freshness, mouth feel and overall impression. Products are placed in bar-coded containers to hide their identities. Judges enter scores into data-secure computers, using bar-code scanners to match the scores to the products. No group discussion is allowed, and results are tabulated instantly.Judging panels include chefs certified at levels of Culinarian, Executive Chef, Chef Du Cuisine, Culinary Educator or Chef/Owner and must currently be practicing at a leading restaurant, hotel or resort. Whenever possible, the panelists include two of the fewer than 70 Certified Master Chefs in the U.S."When we set up our judging panel, we have no less than eight chefs on a panel," says S. Patrick Finney, national culinary director for QII since 2001. "These chefs come on a rotating basis and judge no more than twice a month The American Culinary Federation likes to tout themselves as the authority on food in America. We like to tout ourselves as the authority on taste. I utilize these chefs from the ACF and renowned chefs who may not be level-specific certified within the industry. But it's our goal to maintain a very high percentage of certified level-specific chefs on our panels, and that will range anywhere from a certified culinarian to a certified master chef So by maintaining that stature, it gives us a whole lot more credibility with the industry."Once the QII panel has selected a winner in a category, it offers the manufacturer a license to use the Gold Medal in its packaging and other marketing. "If they choose not to license with us, there's no second place involved here," Finney says. "We put the entire category away for another year before we bring it back to life and re-evaluate it."While categories are judged no more than once a year, some may not be judged again for several years if product activity doesn't warrant a new test. Manufacturers don't have to pay for, or even authorize, a test, but they do pay if they win and choose to license the marketing program. Payment amounts depend on the size of the category and the marketer. "We want to make sure a small organic or gourmet producer would have a fair opportunity to participate and leverage their win," Hagler says, "in the same way a very large cereal or frozen dinner manufacturer might."